In 2019, Rick Martínez set off on a 20,000 mile road trip.
He flew to Mexico, bought a car and traveled to all 32 states in the country, doing research for a cookbook that would capture each regional cuisine of Mexico. Everywhere he went, he asked cooks a simple question: "Out of everything you make, what do you like best?" He picked his favorite meals and adapted them in his new cookbook, Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexico.
For Martínez, every recipe in the book is connected to a memory. The tortas de lechón, slow-roasted pork sandwiches, were inspired by the ones he encountered in Aguascalientes. The salsa de chipotle y chile de árbol was inspired by the salsa made by a woman he met in Guanajuato.
Martínez told NPR his goal with this cookbook is to "expand the canon" for what Mexican food in the U.S. can be. "When I was asked to develop recipes for publications or for YouTube, I was always asked to develop a variation of an existing dish. So, a different version of an enchilada or a taco," he said. Mi Cocina showcases the wide breadth of cuisine from Mexico's diverse regions.
Martínez grew up in Austin, Texas. His parents cooked for the family every day. His father made breakfast, and his mother made dinner. His mother was especially interested in reconnecting with the family's Mexican heritage. She taught herself to make tamales. She used ingredients like dried chillies and avoided shortcuts like canned sauces. "My aunts saw it as the equivalent of churning your own butter," he writes. Martínez learned to cook from watching her.
His other sources of knowledge were two white chefs: Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless, who taught Mexican cooking on TV. "I knew a lot more about Mexico and culture and food because of them," Martínez said. "But there was a part of me that was like, why is it that they get to do this? There are talented Mexican chefs." Now, Martínez hosts the food series Pruébalo and Sweet Heat on YouTube.
Martínez knew the food in Mexico was going to be amazing. But his motivation for traveling the country went deeper. "It was important for me to do this because I needed to understand where I came from," he said. In Mexico, he would be around more people who looked like him.
Martínez writes that he used to be apologetic about being American. But in Mexico, locals would tell him, "'No, tu corazón es Mexicano.' Your heart is Mexican."
To listen to the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of the page. Natalie Escobar edited this story for the web.
Salsa de Chipotle y Chile de Árbol
Smoky dried jalapeños and chile de árbol, stewed with tomatoes
MAKES 1½ CUPS
- 4 medium Roma tomatoes(1 lb/453 g), cored and roughly chopped
- 2 chiles chipotles for mild or 4 for hot, stemmed
- 2 chiles de árbol for mild to 4 for hot, stemmed and seeded for a milder flavor
- ¼ medium white onion (3.5 oz/98 g), roughly chopped
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1 teaspoon Morton kosher salt (0.21 oz/6 g), plus more to taste
- Fresh lime juice (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, combine the tomatoes, chipotles, chiles de árbol, onion, garlic, salt, and ½ cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until the chiles and vegetables are soft, for about 15 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for 10 minutes to cool slightly. Transfer to the jar of a blender and purée on medium-low until almost smooth. Taste and season with more salt and lime juice if desired.
The salsa can be made 2 days ahead. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to 1 month.